Greek mythology has crept its way into popular modern culture, unlike other texts of ancient literature. We can see its legacy in modern art, literature, television, film, psychology, music and more. So, here is a brief introduction to the most popular characters of Greek Mythology – a useful addition to your bank of knowledge, and a source of inspiration!
(For some Gods, the Roman equivalent of their names are also given)
An endless void of nothingness from which the primordial deities were born from. In Greek Mythology, Chaos existed before all and acted as the foundation for all reality. In Hesiod’s The Theogony, the poet remarks that “at first Chaos came to be”.
Gaia and Uranus
Both children of Chaos. Gaia is Mother Nature personified, and Uranus the god of the sky.
It is told that Uranus rained upon Gaia, and from this union Gaia birthed nature; the creatures of the Earth, the trees, flowers, rivers and lakes. However, their love not remain intact in other stories.
There are various popular myths regarding these one-eyed monsters. In one, Gaia and Uranus produced these three monstrous children. Uranus, fearful of their power, imprisoned them in Tartarus (an abyss in the Underworld) to Gaia’s dismay. In later stories, Gaia sought revenge and manages to overthrow Uranus with the aid of her other children.
In another popular story, the Greek hero Odysseus had an encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops (son of Poseidon), and infamously tricked him by telling him that his name is “No Man”. As a result, Polyphemus was unable to ask for help since ‘No Man’ was attacking him.
The Furies (Erinyes)
Three sisters: Alecto, Tsiphone, and Megaira. They were usually depicted as being evil and powerful hags, and essentially carried out sentences on those who had sinned. They particularly focused on those who sinned against other family members, and drove them to madness.
The power of the Furies was feared so much by the Ancient Greeks that many refused to utter their name.
The Fates (Moirai)
Three sisters: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. They were usually envisaged as old crones, telling prophecies and deciding Fate as they spun thread.
In some poems, the Moirai are depicted as individual entities, not subject to the will of Zeus, whereas in others Zeus is the ultimate decider of Fate.
Cronus (Kronos, Saturn)
The most popular of the Titan Gods, Cronus is the youngest son of Gaia and Uranus. He fathers most of the Olympian Gods (Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia). He infamously swallowed them whole (except Zeus) as soon as his wife Rhea gave birth to them, in fear of the prophecy that one would usurp him.
He also castrated his own father Uranus on Gaia’s wishes, flinging the genitals into the sea, resulting in the birth of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.
Zeus (Jupiter, Jove)
The Almighty God of Olympus, Zeus is the most well-known mythological Greek character. As well as being the God of all gods, he was also the god of the sky and thunder. The youngest of his siblings, Zeus was rescued from being eaten by his tyrannous father Cronus, who instead swallowed a rock. Zeus’ mother Rhea took him to safety on the island of Crete where he lived amongst the nymphs, growing stronger and older. He eventually usurped Cronus and forced him to vomit his siblings out, allowing them to roam free.
Zeus also lead the war against the Titans, and defeated them with the help of his siblings. Many of the Titans were forced down into Tartarus, whereas some were punished with other torturous fates. For example, the Titan Atlas was forced to carry the weight of the sky on his shoulders. Zeus divided the Earth amongst him and his brothers, assigning the sky to himself, the sea to Poseidon, and the underworld to Hades.
Queen of Olympus, and wife of Zeus. She is usually depicted as a jealous, tormenting the children Zeus had with other lovers.
An example of Hera’s wrath is with the famous hero Heracles (Hercules); the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. In one story, Hera tried to kill Heracles when he was a baby, sending serpents to attack him in his crib. When Zeus heard of this, he punished Hera by hanging her by the wrists from Mount Olympus and attaching weights to her feet.
God of the Sea and the ‘earth-shaker’, one of the most powerful Olympian gods. In many stories, his character is portrayed as being easily offended and aggressive, causing storms and earthquakes.
In one story, Poseidon and Athena (the goddess of wisdom) have a contest to win the role of patron deity for the city of Athens. Cecrops, the first king of Athens, asks both to give him their best gift. Poseidon produces a well of salty water, which the people aren’t pleased about, whereas Athena plants a beautiful olive tree. Due to his wrath and jealousy, Poseidon curses Athens so that it may never have enough water.
The virgin goddess of wisdom and war. She is a product of Zeus’ mind and was quite literally birthed from his head. She is a protectress of many citadels, namely Athens.
Athena is extremely proud of her talent, which is depicted in the story of Arachne. Arachne was a young girl who was incredibly skilled at weaving, and boasted that she was more talented that the goddess Athena, and so Athena declared that they have a weaving contest. By the end, Arachne had weaved a story showing the abuse of the Olympian gods, a piece far more beautiful than Athena’s. Out of jealousy, Athena turned Arachne into a spider.
The god of war. He didn’t have a wife but had an ongoing relationship with Aphrodite, producing four children. For the Greeks, Ares was an unpopular god obsessed with violence and cruelty. On the other hand, he was very popular as Mars with the Romans and worshipped with respect. In Roman mythology he fathered Romulus, the founder of Rome.
The goddess of love and beauty. Despite being married to Hephaestus (the God of fire), she had four children with Ares: Deimus (Fear), Phobus (Panic), Eros (Love), and Harmonia (Harmony). She caused many conflicts with the other gods. For example, when Hephaestus found out about her affair, he trapped Aphrodite and Ares into bed for all the other gods to see. Zeus punished Aphrodite by forcing her to fall in love with a mortal (who would die and cause her pain).
Aphrodite also indirectly caused the Trojan War, gifting Helen, wife of Spartan king Menelaus to the Trojan prince Paris.
The messenger god, best known for his winged sandals. He was the son of Zeus and a nymph, often appearing as help for Greek heroes, giving them directions and advice.
He is very witty and skilful, often helping out the other gods in sticky situations. He even managed to win Hera’s acceptance despite not being her son.
Artemis (Diana) and Apollo
Artemis was the goddess of the forest, wild animals and hunting, her twin brother Apollo was the god of music and poetry.
Apollo was seen as highly intellectual and wise, often appearing as the god of light, whereas Artemis was a fierce goddess with strong principles. When Callisto (her follower) bore Zeus’ child she punished her by transforming her into a bear and scaring her away with arrows. The twins were usually associated with death, Artemis was responsible for the demise of women whereas Apollo of men.
Demeter (Ceres) and Persephone
Demeter was the goddess of agriculture, and Persephone her young daughter. Their story is the Ancient Greek explanation for the annual cycle of the seasons. Persephone’s father, Zeus, agreed that Hades could marry her, without consulting Demeter. When Hades kidnapped Persephone into the underworld, Demeter was grief-stricken and caused famines across the Earth.
In an effort to console her, Zeus sent Hermes to fetch Persephone from the underworld. However, since Hades was in love with her, he offered her some pomegranate seeds in an attempt to bind her to the underworld forever. Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds and as a result had to spend six months with Hades every year. She had to return to Hades at the beginning of every winter, causing Demeter’s depression and the withering plants, and could return to Earth in the spring.
God of the underworld. Despite being viewed as unlucky by the Greeks, Hades was never viewed as evil. However, he has been depicted as displeased for being assigned the underworld as his share of the Earth.
He was often portrayed with his three-headed dog Cerberus (much like Fluffy from Harry Potter). Hades was also portrayed as sympathetic in some stories. For example, he gave Orpheus a chance to save his wife Eurydice from the underworld after hearing his beautifully sad music.
Another popular myth, known as Pandora’s box. Zeus created Pandora, a beautiful woman as punishment for mankind since Prometheus had given the humans fire without his permission. She was fashioned out of clay by Hephaestus, Athena breathed life into her, and Aphrodite gave her beauty.
Pandora married Epimetheus, and ignoring his instruction, opened a box filled with sickness, madness, sorrow, old age and all vices. Amongst all the evil Pandora released into the world, she also releases Hope.
Goddesses acting as sources of inspiration for artists, writers, and musicians. They were nine sisters: Callipoe (epic poetry), Clio (history), Poylhymnia (mime), Euterpe (flute), Terpsichore (verse and dance), Erato (lyrical choral/love poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy), and Urania (astronomy).
We’ve come to the end of this post! The characters I picked for this post are some of the most popular ones, however they’re only a small fraction from the world of Greek Mythology. If you’re interested in a broader introduction, Malcolm Day’s ‘100 Characters from Classical Mythology’ is very useful! For me, Greek mythology is an abyss of inspiration, if you’re a creative let it be your muse.
I have another post based on Greek mythology coming soon, ‘follow’ my blog on the homepage by entering your email address to keep updated!
Thanks for reading,